New year, old beginnings


Why naming the start of mass incarceration matters

A simple truth in health care is that diagnosis determines treatment. Ohio, like all U.S. states, is suffering from a deep social illness, and the primary presenting symptom is a severe excess of our fellow human beings in concrete cages. Just in this state, we have over 50,000 people in state prisons designed to hold about 38,000. We have a mass incarceration problem. But getting clear about the root of this symptom and when the illness began is absolutely essential for any movement seeking to heal this country. OJPC is a leading partner in this movement in Ohio, and so, this matters a great deal to us.

A few months ago in the U.S. presidential campaign, there was some talk about policing and criminal justice reform, and even mass incarceration. Some wondered whether Hillary Clinton could legitimately distinguish herself from her husband’s 1994 Crime Bill, which greatly contributed to the last two decades of mass incarceration. If you are relatively new to this issue, that public conversation might have led you into believing that mass incarceration started with that federal bill. If that’s the diagnosis, then the cure would be to undo whatever was started in 1994.

But if you have a little more familiarity with mass incarceration, you’ve probably seen a chart like this: 

This plainly shows mass incarceration started well before 1994. You might look at this chart and decide that mass incarceration really got going in the 1980s. This was when President Reagan unleashed the War on Drugs in full, with — intentionally or not — dramatically disparate enforcement depending on the poverty and predominant race of a community. This is the era when tens of millions of dollars flowed from the federal government to state governments to ensure alignment of purpose. And that purpose was: lock up “bad guys.” The more bad guys you locked up, the more money your police department, sheriff’s office, or prosecutor’s office would receive. Some diagnose the misguidedness of this era as the beginning of mass incarceration and, so, look for the cure here. In the last two years, there have been smart proposals to change the public-safety metrics that drive law-enforcement funding formulas and, therefore, law-enforcement practice.

You might look closer at a chart like the one above and, if you knew a little more history, put the start of mass incarceration slightly earlier, when President Nixon and his advisors coined the term “war on drugs” in 1971. Those who view this as the starting point of mass incarceration naturally propose getting drug offenders — at least the low-level, non-violent ones — out of prisons. The Marshall Project has a highly useful tool for demonstrating the inadequacy of this diagnosis and treatment. Their interactive sliders allow you to play around with what it would look like to reduce or eliminate certain categories of offenses from state prison populations. Completely eliminating those with just drug possession charges would drop the population by about 4%. Ohio’s prisons are currently 33% over capacity.

The failure of these diagnoses and their corresponding proposed treatments must push us to look further. There is a present-day signal in the mass incarceration stats, which suggests we start much further back with our historical diagnosis and, therefore, work toward a cure on a much deeper level.

Black people make up 13.7% (1.59M people) of Ohio’s population yet represent 44.4% (22,500 people) of the state prison population. If in Ohio black people were incarcerated at the same rates as white people — for all types of crime — we’d have 18,000 fewer black and brown bodies in Ohio’s prisons.

As Michelle Alexander has forcefully argued in The New Jim Crow, this fact leads us back not even to the Jim Crow era (1870s–1960s), but all way back to 1619, the year the first African slaves landed on American shores. Ta-Nehisi Coates, especially in the last year, has made a steady, thorough, and devastating explication of a hateful paradox: “in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body;” and yet, also, “America begins in black plunder.” From slavery through convict leasing, from sharecropping through Jim Crow and now mass incarceration, the pattern is the same: denigrate people based on phenotype, and plunder wealth in the process. This requires a white dominant class to both keep down black people, but also keep them close. Under slavery, the paradox is represented by violence and repression used to maintain cheap agricultural labor. During Reconstruction and the beginning of the convict-leasing system, it looked like the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the demand for expendable bodies to work in extraordinarily dangerous mines and factories. During Jim Crow, it was lynchings and sharecropping. Now it is mass incarceration as a rural-employment strategy, along with a corporate profit strategy with private prisons.

To see mass incarceration as the great-great-grandchild of slavery, you also have to know that its history did not only arise in the Deep South. Ohio, for example, became a state in 1803. By a margin of a single vote, Ohio leaders denied black people the right to vote, and black people were barred from holding public office. State government leaders quickly followed that vote by enacting the Black Codes of 1804 and 1807. These codes meant, among other things, that black people in Ohio had to post a $500 bond to local authorities just to live in Ohio, had to carry papers asserting that they were free, and could not participate in any legal proceedings that involved a white person (unless they were the criminal defendant, and they could not testify in their own case). And Ohio was no stranger to violence meant to intimidate and segregate black people into a lower caste. Ohio’s first prison, built by ‘inmates’ themselves, was established in 1834, and convict labor was practiced.

"Convicts"/Workers and Guard outside the Cincinnati Workhouse, established in 1869. Photo taken in 1932.
“Convicts”/Workers and Guard outside the Cincinnati Workhouse, established in 1869. Photo taken in 1932.

You cannot see mass incarceration for what it is unless you see what it evolved from and carried forward. Without that — if you see the start of mass incarceration in 1994, or 1980, or 1971 — any proposed cure is guaranteed to simply bring a new strain of the old virus. Thus, one can see some of the ardent support for removing job barriers for people with criminal records is actually rooted in a desire for a new source of docile, non-unionized labor that will gratefully accept poverty wages in exchange for their “second chance.” One can see private prison operators already evolving their business models to include community-based corrections and electronic monitoring. These new forms, just like the old, will need vastly disproportionate numbers of black people struggling to make ends meet and keep their families together in order to guarantee a healthy bottom line.

For OJPC, however, and our allies across the state, a deeper historical diagnosis is the key to our power to change all of this. We believe 2016 will be a year when our advocacy and education, rooted in this understanding of history, will be able to bring present transformation to the systems that are harming people and communities.

author: Stephen JohnsonGrove

contributor: Erik Crew